September 20, 2012 by John-Charles Duffy
Reblogged from Liberal Mormon Spirituality.
There is a cherished myth in America–Romney frequently invokes it–which says that America is a place where anyone who exercises initiative and works hard can succeed.
A corollary often derived from that myth is that if you prosper, this is the result of your having exercised initiative and worked hard–in other words, a result of your good morals. This is to say that your prosperity is a reward, which you are entitled (yes, “entitled”) to enjoy.
American culture does place a modest pressure on those who prosper to “give something,” as we say, back to the community. “Something,” though. Not all. Not even close to all. Because, again, you’re entitled to enjoy what is construed as the fruits of your labor. You deserve it. And if you “give something” back, you do so as an act of largesse, not an obligation.
A further corollary of this myth-making is that if someone doesn’t prosper, this is the result of their having failed to exercise initiative and work hard. In other words, their lack of prosperity is a result of their poor morals. Lack of prosperity is the proper penalty for poor choices. It is deserved.
Americans have been living by this myth for a long time. Long enough that the Book of Mormon, written in the late 1820s, contains a protest against it. Born into a family whose fortunes had declined due to repeated setbacks, and despite their best efforts, Joseph Smith was in a position to see through the myth that good morals = prosperity and bad morals = poverty. And so we find King Benjamin saying this:
Ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 4:16-19)
“The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand . . . for his punishments are just.” That’s Smith’s bitter parody of the logic behind Romney’s complaint about people “who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement.”
Romney is echoing here a widely held corollary of the American myth. No one’s entitled to a handout. Anyone who wants to get ahead can do so if they just work hard–so if you find yourself in need, you have only yourself to blame. “The man has brought upon himself his misery.”
King Benjamin rejects the logic of the American myth. Your prosperity is not a reward for your hard work. It’s a handout–a handout that you received from God. “Are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have?”
And because you are a beggar, you are in no position to be faulting someone else for being a beggar. You are in no position–you are not entitled–to get all holier-than-they on the grounds that you worked hard to get what you have while it’s their own fault that they’re not in the same position. You’re not in a position to pontificate about how people in need should “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Personal responsibility and self-reliance are pointedly not the virtues touted in King Benjamin’s sermon. Those virtues are an illusion, he says. The reality is that we’re all beggars, dependent on God’s largesse. And someone who maintains otherwise in order to blame others for their poverty, as justification for denying them assistance, “hath great cause to repent.”